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Sports / Basketball

The Real Reason for the NBA’s Offensive Explosion

In case you hadn’t noticed, the NBA is experiencing an offensive explosion. Teams are averaging over 112 points per game this season. By comparison, the league scored only 106 points per game last season and a mere 100 points per game five years ago. It is difficult to explain just how preposterous this increase is. In the first two weeks of this season, four players scored 50 points in a game—there were only six such games in the entirety of the 2013-14 season.

At the simplest level, the surge in scoring has two primary causes. First, teams are playing much faster than in years past, averaging about eight more possessions per game in 2018 than in 2013. More possessions mean more chances to score; that’s how the Hawks dropped 115 points on the Kings in their early November showdown, despite embarrassing efficiency numbers. At the same time, though, teams are scoring more efficiently than ever as well. Even on a per-possession basis, offense is at an all-time high.

The twin trends toward faster and more productive offense are not coincidental—they are the product of a major stylistic shift in NBA basketball. Teams have adopted the ‘pace-and-space’ offense, a strategy predicated on running, gunning and shooting a boatload of three-pointers. Powered by the statistical breakthrough that three is greater than two, NBA teams have set countless records for three-pointers taken and made over the past five years.

So far this season, though, teams have taken outside shooting to its logical extreme. The league three-point attempt rate (the proportion of shots taken from behind the arc) is higher than it has ever been. Even seven-foot behemoths are getting in on the action! Pace-and-space—once the calling card of a small number of forerunning, high-octane offenses—is everywhere in the NBA in 2018. But how did this happen? How did we get to a world where John freaking Henson is taking three-pointers?

It is clear that the success of early adopters was the spark that set the fire. In particular, the Golden State Warriors used prolific three-point shooting to power a record-setting juggernaut. The NBA is a copycat league, and it should be no surprise that the other 29 teams strove to imitate the the style of play that launched a dynasty. However, the process behind this imitation is only partly understood. Some analysts argue that changes in player development, with an emphasis on outside shooting, yielded the offensive inferno we have today. Others argue that an offseason rules change limited the ability of defenses to guard players on the perimeter. Yet it was not a change in personnel or rules enforcement that catalyzed this year’s surge in offense and three-point attempts. The dramatic, stylistic shift we are seeing is primarily the result of changes in the league’s coaching ranks.

In the summer of 2018, seven NBA teams hired new coaches. Observe:

Team New Coach
Charlotte Hornets San Antonio Spurs assistant James Borrego
Phoenix Suns Utah Jazz assistant Igor Kokoskov
Toronto Raptors Toronto Raptors assistant Nick Nurse
Atlanta Hawks Philadelphia 76ers assistant Lloyd Pierce
Milwaukee Bucks Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer
Detroit Pistons Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey
Orlando Magic Charlotte Hornets coach Steve Clifford

This group shares something in common: a progressive coaching philosophy. The newcomers—Borrego, Kokoskov, Nurse, and Pierce—were all hired from forward-thinking organizations. San Antonio is perhaps the birthplace of the pass-heavy, three-happy offense that teams strive for today. Utah often draws flattering comparisons to those very Spurs teams. Toronto rode a pace-and-space offense to an outstanding season last year, and the 76ers are regarded as one of the most analytically-inclined teams in the league.

Even two of the retreads, Budenholzer and Casey, have embraced the new direction of the league. Budenholzer’s Atlanta teams were often labeled “Spurs East” for their beautiful motion offense. Casey led the aforementioned 2017 Raptors team that had the third-best offense in the league. Only Clifford entered this season with an ‘old-school’ reputation, as his Hornets teams of years past were frustratingly averse to the three-point shot.

Nevertheless, all seven coaches have embraced the three-pointer this season, Clifford included. Each team that hired a new coach has increased its three-point attempt rate (3PAr), with the sole exception of Nick Nurse’s Raptors. However, the Raptors had by far the highest 2017 3PAr of the bunch, and key shooters OG Anunoby and Fred Van Vleet missed time in the early going. Rest assured, the Raptors remain a three-point happy team; like its six counterparts, the franchise has a 3PAr above the 0.348 league average.


Team 2018 3PAr 2017 3PAr
Charlotte Hornets 0.379 0.314
Phoenix Suns 0.381 0.320
Toronto Raptors 0.364 0.377
Atlanta Hawks 0.423 0.363
Milwaukee Bucks 0.444 0.297
Detroit Pistons 0.348 0.333
Orlando Magic 0.364 0.342
LEAGUE AVERAGE 0.348 0.337

However these new coaches aren’t simply a part of the increase in outside shooting; they are the increase. That is, if each of the seven teams were shooting threes this year at their 2017 rate, the league as a whole would be back to last year’s levels.

2018 3PAr 0.348
2017 3PAr 0.337
2018 3PAr Without Coaching Changes 0.336

Regress the Hawks’ 3PAr from 0.423 back to 0.363. Regress the Bucks’ 3PAr from 0.444 to 0.297. Pretty soon, three-point attempts are back to 2017 levels. Without the changes implemented by these new coaches, “the second wave of the NBA’s three-point revolution” would have never arrived.

Change is coming in the NBA, and it is coming from the top. Simply put, players are shooting more threes because their coaches are telling them to! Yet this kind of analysis is just scratching the surface. It is no coincidence that a bevy of forward-thinking coaches were hired this past summer. NBA general managers are likely the ones leading the charge; if a GM wants a pace-and-space offense, then they will hire a pace-and-space coach. Indeed, some of the coaching changes we saw this year were preceded by front-office shakeups. The Milwaukee Bucks, for instance, hired GM Jon Horst in the summer of 2017, making him the youngest general manager in the league. It is not surprising that former coach and part-dinosaur Jason Kidd did not make it long into Horst’s tenure. Nor was the hiring of coach Budenholzer at all unexpected for an executive committed to adapting to the modern game. With this in mind, it is relatively easy to predict how the next year or so will go. Old-school coaches will be kicked to the curb, and the league three-point rate will rise all the while.

Note: All statistics compiled before November 1st